Food for thought

The Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) has published its response to the Wales Net Zero 2035 Group’s first challenge question ‘How could Wales feed itself in 2035?’ recommending urgent and open debate around Wales’ food system, one of the sectors that is currently a major contributor to Wales’ greenhouse gas emissions.

This WCPP report points to ways to support Welsh farming while changing certain practices to unlock more rapid progress towards Welsh Government net zero ambitions.

An overview of key data and trends of the food system in Wales and a discussion paper lay out the key issues that must be tackled in the collective fight against climate change. By making significant adjustments to Welsh agriculture and land use, the paper argues that Wales could make up for lost time in the race to achieve net zero. Achieving this will require policy makers, Welsh farming and other sectors to work together to find workable solutions.
WCPP, part of Cardiff University’s Social Science Research Park, has been commissioned by the Welsh Government to provide relevant evidence and expertise to inform the work of the Wales Net Zero 2035 Challenge Group, which is chaired by former Welsh Government Environment Minister Jane Davidson.

Jane Davidson said, “We welcome this report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy to help us develop our work. Our Group has been charged by Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru with providing ‘independent advice to examine potential pathways to net zero by 2035 – the current target date is 2050. This will look at the impact on society and sectors of our economy and how any adverse effects may be mitigated, including how the costs and benefits are shared fairly.’

“Our challenge as a Group, which has the wellbeing of future generations at its heart, is to identify pathways to accelerate progress to net zero while ensuring a nature-positive and just transition that safeguards communities.~

“The research for this challenge area reveals some concerning trends around Wales’ food system and encouragingly, also identifies measures to help tackle emissions and pollution leading to improved biodiversity and human health.

“Whilst interventions can be explored around peatland, forestry and our coast, we must not shy away from the question of Welsh farming.

“Like many sectors, Welsh farmers are in a tough economic situation following Brexit and the conflict in Ukraine. We must work together to address the even greater challenge of climate change.

“Nature needs farmers – and increasingly, farmers need nature to survive and thrive. Livestock farming is intrinsically linked with our national identity, and while acknowledging those strong feelings, it is important to have forthright but healthy discussions with the farming sector on what the evidence is telling us as we work together to find the net zero pathways that will work for Wales.”

Dr Helen Tilley, WCPP Senior Research Fellow said, “It is clear from our work on this topic that there are multiple, deeply entrenched and interconnected obstacles to the sustainability of Wales’ land use, farming and food systems; but the evidence also helps us identify some important opportunities for change.

“Achieving this will require policy makers, agriculture and other sectors to work together to find workable solutions, recognising the need to support Welsh farmers and communities.”


  • According to the CCC’s balanced pathway, agriculture is predicted to be the largest source of emissions in Wales in 2035, as other sectors decarbonise more quickly
  • Farming in Wales is largely livestock (87%), the majority of which is sheep and cattle grazing (73%) compared to just 6% devoted to crops and horticulture (excluding very small farms)
  • Direct methane emissions from livestock make up 61% of agricultural emissions in Wales with manure management contributing an additional 14% of emissions
  • Agriculture is a significant source of air, soil, water and ammonia pollution (it is Wales’ second biggest contributor to reported river pollution incidents)
  • Due to a lack of tree planting, the size of the carbon sink generated by woodland and peatland has shrunk in the last decade and in 2019 only offset 1% of total Welsh emissions
  • Wales currently produces around ¼ of a portion of fruit and veg per day per person
  • 95% of Welsh beef and lamb products are purchased and eaten in other countries


  • Our research tells us that to reach net zero, agricultural land will need to be used in ways that add to our carbon sinks, such as increasing our woodland, forestry and peat bogs
  • Evidence suggests employing a mix of land sharing and land sparing approaches to reduce emissions and support Welsh farmers
  • Reducing agricultural emissions will require a reduction in livestock numbers – it is a case of what we farm and not how we farm that will make the biggest difference
  • Assessment of ways to reduce livestock emissions without reducing the scale of livestock production indicate these measures alone will not go far enough
  • The global reduction in demand for meat and dairy has major implications for Welsh farming given livestock makes up 86% of Wales’ agricultural output


  • Welsh farmers’ options for diversification are limited due to geographic and climatic conditions butonly around one third of our most versatile land is being used for crops
  • Economic conditions are already challenging for the sector. Any changes to agricultural support must ensure supported for affected livestock farmers
  • Climate change will affect viability of land for food production but improvements can be made to land and soil
  • The new Agriculture Bill will be a key mechanism for the Welsh Government to shape land management practices but we recommend an increased focus on reducing overall emissions
  • There is a need to find alternative ways of sustaining rural livelihoods other than livestock grazing for some of the 79% of Welsh land less suited for crops
  • There is a disconnection between domestic food production and consumption in Wales with most of the food we eat imported and most of the food we produce exported
  • The report recommends reducing both production and consumption emissions. Increasing access to healthy, affordable and locally-sourced food would reap multiple benefits for all
  • Reducing food waste and the issue of food packaging is another significant challenge. UK farm food waste is equivalent to around 7% of food intended for consumption
  • Further evidence is needed around the possibilities of marine carbon storage around Wales